Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Tragedy of Absalom, Prince of Israel

Absalom is maligned as a cruel and wicked character, a man who rebels against his father, the villain in this particular scenario. This is the way he is presented to us as children; we all know the midrash that Gehennom opens beneath his feet while his long tresses are tangled upon the outstretched branch. But if you actually read the chapters and scenarios in order, you will see that Absalom's actions are motivated with cause, that far from being a villain, he is a righteous person who met a tragic end. His intentions were pure.

To understand Absalom's story, you must begin with his actions on behalf of Tamar. Tamar is raped by his half-brother Amnon. Not only does Amnon rape her, but he then refuses to give her the protection of his name, forcing her from his room. Absalom finds her and comforts her, counseling her to accept her fate. One can imagine the effort it takes for him to utter such cold words, when in truth his only desire is to avenge her. But he waits. He waits to see what the King will say, what his judgement shall be. Considering that King David expressly commanded Tamar to "Go now to thy brother Amnon's house, and dress him food" (Samuel II 13: 7), he is indirectly responsible and more liable to blame himself. Or so we would think. We are informed of King David's reaction: "He was very wroth." And yet, he does nothing. King David is angry, extremely angry, but he takes no action. Amnon is allowed to go in peace. Justice has not been done, villainy has been tolerated, the rapist roams unharmed while his victim sits desolate in her brother's house.

Absalom does nothing. He bides his time, waiting for the opportune moment. He does not reveal his inner thoughts to Amnon, only waits until he is given the opportunity to take his revenge. He bids his servants kill Amnon at the sheep-shearing feast, obviously believing himself to be completely in the right because he has them commit the murder in full view of everyone, of all the other guests and the rest of the king's sons. He does not proceed by stealth or by subtle plans, in the manner that Amnon did. He kills in the open; justice is served.

But he does not trust his father. He knows that his father did not serve justice the first time and he is liable not to wish it to be served in this case; he therefore flees, running from his father's wrath but hoping to be brought back, hoping that his father will understand that he only did what his father was not strong enough to do; he rid the kingdom of a rapist and avenged his sister's shame. He believes that his father will see reason. But David is proud and he is stubborn and though his heart longs for his son (Samuel II 13: 39), he will not send for him.

It is Joab who manipulates the King into fulfilling his own desire, allowing the Wise Woman of Tekoah to lead him into sending for Absalom. But the king is still proud. He allows his son to return but cautions Joab, "'Let him turn to his own house, but let him not see my face." (Samuel II 14: 24) He is still angry with Absalom and spurns him, allowing him back into the kingdom but refusing to receive him as his son. Absalom obeys his father, returning to his own house and not looking upon his father's face. But he is sad and perhaps resentful- does his father not see the necessity of his actions? Does he not realize that it is cruel to punish the son who only did what the father could not?

Absalom loved his sister enough to avenge her and indeed to name his daughter after her (Samuel II 14: 27).

And then look. Absalom dwelt two full years in Jerusalem and did not see his father (Samuel II 14: 28). It has been at least five years since the murder (three since he fled, two since he returned) and David has not summoned him or looked upon him. He has instead been cold, exceedingly cold, choosing to avoid his child, choosing to pretend that he does not exist. Absalom loves his father and misses him. This is extremely hurtful. Why does David so punish Absalom for only doing what was just; why does he so prefer his other son, the rapist?

Absalom finally comes up with a way to force his father to acknowledge him. He burns Joab's fields, thereby earning an audience with Joab. He informs Joab "'Behold, I sent unto thee, saying: Come hither, that I may send thee to the king, to say: Wherefore am I come from Geshur? it were better for me to be there still; now therefore let me see the king's face; and if there be iniquity in me, let him kill me."

Absalom takes the issue and confronts it. "Why have I come here if my father refuses to acknowledge me?" he pleads. "Let me see my father's face, the king's face, and if there be iniquity in me, let him kill me." But enough of this endless waiting. Enough of this cold, aloof way of dealing with the situation, this pretense that I do not exist; let him allow me to see him or let him kill me, but let this be done with.

The king does see Absalom. And they appear to be reconciled, for "the king kisses Absalom" (Samuel II 14: 33). But wounds like these are not so easily healed. Notice that the king kisses Absalom. It is not vice versa. Absalom does not kiss the king. The King has forgiven. Absalom will not forgive. "Do you think I will forget," he seems to ask, "do you think I will forget how you preferred him to me, how you mourned for him but banished me, how you avoided your duty as King and did not harm him, how you simply allowed him to walk free, to breathe the very air I breathe? Do you think I will forget? I will not forget. You chose to ignore me, to act so cold, so very cold to me! I have not forgotten and will not forget."

And this leads to the next chapter and Absalom's subsequent thoughts. We see the following verses:
    And Absalom said unto him: 'See, thy matters are good and right; but there is no man deputed of the king to hear thee.'

    4 Absalom said moreover: 'Oh that I were made judge in the land, that every man who hath any suit or cause might come unto me, and I would do him justice!'

And is Absalom not right? He answers based on his own experience! His father the King did not judge fairly when it came to Tamar and Amnon, did not judge fairly with him. "There is no man deputed of the king to hear thee-" in the same way that the King did not hear Tamar's cries. "Oh, that I were made judge in the land-" this exclamation is honest and genuine. Would that I Absalom were judge, I who understands the meaning of justice, no matter the cost!

It is with these pure and good intentions that Absalom slowly becomes twisted. At first he rationalizes that he must take the kingdom from David in order to rule honorably and justly; he cements this by consorting with his father's concubines. He desires to take the kingdom by force. Note that David realizes that this is his fault! He counsels all his men "Beware that none touch the young man Absalom." David understands why Absalom has chosen to rebel against him; he realizes his cause.

And perhaps now we understand the dramatic, moving, tragic scene where David exclaims "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!" (Samuel II 19: 1) Notice how he calls Absalom son, how he owns him now, but it is too late! He was cold before; he was frozen and aloof- he refused to see his son, to allow him into his presence- he chose Amnon over him, chose his grief for Amnon, for the dead over the living- and look what it has cost him! "Would I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son," I regret it, I regret what I have done and wish I could take it back- you are mine, you are mine, you are my son.

And is this not the tragedy of it all? Absalom's actions are motivated by his father's passivity; his father is a man torn between his love for Amnon and his daughter Tamar, and though he is extremely angry with Amnon on Tamar's behalf he cannot bring himself to hurt him. His love gets in the way of his judgement; Absalom fulfills the judgement and the King extends his banishment, refusing to accept him as his son. It is only at the last, when Absalom has taken matters into his own hands, determined that he must rule if there is to be any justice that the King understands- and regrets, and tries to avoid the inevitable- but Absalom dies and it is now when it is too late that the King wishes that he had known that he was always his son, that he always loved him. My son, my son Absalom.


Stubborn and Strong said...

i am not scholor as you are but I really like your version! You bring Abshalom as human being! Look, every villian is human being even most cruelest people have reasons why they do it. But if the people do crime for no reason, then they are not human being, they have no soul. You made Abshalom have a soul. It is amazing! Keep it up!

tzvi said...

I love your blog.
Your description of Avshalom reminds me of myself, when faced with injustice-many times take the law into my own hands & create even greater chaos. IMHO he should have pushed for justice through normal channels, maybe peaceful civil disobediance etc. At the end of the day his heart was in the right place, but he lacked wisdom. Balls without brains usually leads to trouble

G said...

One of the reasons I sometimes prefer N"Ch, the players seem and act more real to me.

To the point of this post:
We all know what they say about the road to hell...

Anonymous said...

excellent points and the details are more precise than elsewhere, thanks.

- Murk

Anonymous said...

excellent points and the details are more specific than somewhere else, thanks.

- Thomas

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

still comes up short.

my father mistreated my mother. he rarely showed her tenderness. but she served their 7 children well, showing us the fruits of the spirit, love, xhara--what the 10 virgins felt when they heard the voice of the bridegroom, peace, gentle, meek, kind. she visited the elderly and widows in our neighborhood. i did not hear her speak against our neigbors. the opposite of my father. after we left, he drove her to a severely disabling stroke. we never saw him sit next to her wheelchair and read to her, or even touch her. i hated him. i cried for my mother. and at his funeral, she asked my brother to roll her wheelchair next to him so she could touch him. and we fulfilled her wish to bury her casket on top of his.

i am not absalom, but maybe he was a highly sensitive person.

i did not visit my parents for 5 years before my dad died, because i hated him--looking back, not out of
"hardened heart", but immaturity. he was broken. his dad was broken. all of us are broken, so who are we to throw stones. god made this existential mess so only he is judge.

maybe i could identify if, after acting as the righteous judge in the case of tamar, absalom turned his back on his father and his father's kingdom and rode away to be a stranger in a strange land.